To what extent did Locke’s reading of the Bible inform his political philosophy about the nature of government?
The first of his Two Treatises of Government is a biblical, almost verse by verse refutation of the patriarchal political absolutism represented by Robert Filmer. Filmer tried to offer a Bible-based rationale for political absolutism and Locke’s First Treatise is an exacting examination of Scripture to show that there is simply no basis for this absolutism. So, Locke knows his Bible thoroughly. That’s the point of the First Treatise. It’s to show that you can’t use the Bible to justify authoritarian absolute rule. And so, in the Second Treatise, after having done this, Locke lays out natural rights, natural law argument as the basis for consensual government. That’s a clear example.
The other example is Locke’s Letter on Toleration. He begins the letter by invoking the teachings and toleration of Jesus as the model for toleration, for charity, for the willingness to tolerate differences of opinion. He goes back again and again to the example of Christ and the teachings of the apostles. So it’s pretty clear to me that Locke has a well formed biblical anthropology. His view of the human person is grounded in his understanding of the Scriptures, and when he wants to make a moral argument for religious toleration, he goes immediately to the person of Jesus.
He understands his audience so he’s certainly trying to appeal to a biblically literate audience, but you also can see from his private correspondence that he is firmly committed to the teachings of the Bible, to the teachings of Christ as his guide through life. I think one of Locke’s greatest contributions is his ability to bring together in his writings like the Two Treatises of Government and particularly his Letter on Toleration, a combination of natural rights, natural law arguments, historical arguments, and biblical arguments.
It’s the marriage if you will, of political liberalism, government by consent of the governed with the Golden Rule and with the teachings of Christ. For his day, Locke offers a biblically radical reinterpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus. He brings these things together with singular focus that has a transformative effect on the political societies of Great Britain and ultimately the United States.